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Florida's early voting may presage tsunami

By the time polls open Tuesday morning, officials predict that as many as 35 percent of Florida voters already will have cast ballots via early voting or absentee ballot.

Good thing.

That's nearly 4-million people who can stay away while the rest of the state's Nov. 4 electorate — an estimated 5.6-million people — votes the old-fashioned way: at the precinct polling place.

Early and absentee voters have relieved pressure on polling places in advance of what many say will be a monumental turnout. But a Times analysis indicates that it won't be enough to reduce long lines on Election Day if projections hold true.

The numbers of new registered voters are so large (more than 1-million this year) and the expected total turnout for the election is so high (85 percent of 11.2-million registered voters) that traffic in Florida polling places still will be heavier than it was in 2004.

In addition, most Florida voters will be using optical scan ballots for the first time, and election officials expect it to take them longer to vote on the new system than it did on the old touch screen machines.

All signs point to longer lines than in 2004, when many people waited an hour or more to vote.

"Imagine if early voting wasn't there," said Sean Greene, a manager for electionline.org, an election information project of the Pew Center on the States.

The average Florida polling place saw 718 voters on Election Day 2004. That's 60 voters an hour. If turnout projections hold true for Tuesday, the average precinct could see 810 voters, or 67 voters an hour.

In Pinellas, an average of 72 voters an hour could go through each precinct, an increase of six over 2004. Hillsborough's per-precinct traffic stands to increase to 77 voters an hour, up four voters over 2004.

In Miami-Dade County, where there are fewer precincts per voter, the traffic could increase by 20 voters an hour.

"There's an energy and an excitement and an interest that I have not seen in my 31 years doing this," said Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. "Voters are generally excited about a presidential election but this is off the charts."

Experts credit big issues and the prospect of electing the first African-American president or the first female vice president.

How you react to the coming onslaught depends on your outlook. Some voting advocates, wary of scaring people away from the polls, say long waits are not optimal but that's the price of democracy. Others say excessive wait times are good reason to worry about voters being disenfranchised.

Election officials tend to take a brighter view. Their attitude toward high turnout: Bring it on. "You've got to remember we live for this stuff," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "The more the merrier. … If it means headaches on Election Day, that's a headache I want."

Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a voter advocacy group, is less optimistic.

"We are not prepared for that level of engagement in our democracy," she said. "These waits in line are serious because some voters do not have the opportunity to wait."

She criticized elections officials in other states who have made light of the long lines by comparing them to waiting to buy coffee at Starbucks or queuing up for a roller-coaster ride.

"Voting is a right," Browne-Dianis said. "The fact that they're excusing their failure to prepare for this election is inexcusable."

Ever since Florida's famously flawed recount in 2000, elections have been under a microscope. The National Association of Counties warns of a "tsunami of voters."

Electionline.org says: "Another perfect storm may be brewing, only this one has the potential to combine a record turnout with an insufficient number of poll workers and a voting system still in flux."

On Monday, a group of 10 advocacy groups will hold a conference call with journalists to announce an array of resources available on Tuesday, including an "election protection blog" and a real-time map of election trouble spots.

Electionline.org recently released a report titled: "What if We Held an Election and Everyone Came?" It offers a preview of election issues in every state and the District of Columbia.

"The question is no longer exclusively 'Will the system work?' Rather it is, 'Can the system handle the load?' " the report states.

Adds Greene, the electionline.org manager: "Not only do you have more volume, but you have it with all these changes at the polling place."

Florida, for example, will be debuting its second large-scale voting system in the last two presidential elections.

Well aware of the possibility of crowds, election supervisors are working to make the flow of voters go as quickly as possible on Tuesday.

Corley, the Pasco supervisor, said he is one of 16 counties using a device that reads the black strip on the back of a driver's license, speeding the check-in process to just seconds.

He says his staff is more than ready for Tuesday.

In a recent meeting with supervisors, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning said there was no law requiring people to vote in a privacy booth. If the booths are full, he said, why not set out some tables?

With so many people watching the process now, it's more likely that problems that once went unnoticed will be caught before the election, said Greene. "There's always the chance that it'll be fine."

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

Florida's early voting may presage tsunami 11/01/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:07pm]

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